Let me say up front that, in general, I support the idea of labeling food products and that more information is better than less. Because of that I fully expected that I would be voting for Proposition 37, California’s ballot initiative to mandate labeling of genetically engineered (a.k.a. GMO) foods.
But there was a nagging doubt that lurked deep in my heart and it had to do with California’s initiative system. It is a terrible, broken, expensive system that tends to result in well-intentioned but badly written laws that often lead to multimillion-dollar court travails or some truly nasty unintended consequences (such as overcrowded, expensive prisons due to a badly constructed three-strikes law, for example). When I finally sat down to read through the text and analysis of Prop. 37, I found that my nagging doubt was justified.
Prop. 37 mandates that all raw or processed foods that contain GMO ingredients should be labeled and that no such GMO foods could be labeled or advertised as “natural.” The law would be enforced by the Department of Public Health, but how they would do that is up to the DPH to determine. Who would be accountable for the labeling? What would the fines be for infractions? It’s all rather vague.
The analysis by the independent legislative analyst included in the state’s official voter information guide says that “retailers (such as grocery stores) would be primarily responsible for complying.” That was a surprise. I’d assumed that manufacturers and distributors would be responsible. But according to the analyst, retailers would have to have documentation for any unlabeled food that would explain why it is exempt. Although proponents of Prop. 37 say that there’s no reason it should lead to higher food prices, I can’t see how extra work and documentation on the part of retailers would not lead to higher costs to the consumer. Big retail chains may be able to absorb those costs (but why would they?), but my bigger concern is for the low-income areas that are already “grocery ghettoes.” Those areas, largely underserved by the chain stores and more reliant on small mom-and-pop markets, already pay higher food prices and will likely pay more if Prop. 37 passes.
And for what? A warning label that doesn’t really have a clear warning. Because the truth of the matter is there are no good studies demonstrating a clear health risk from GMO foods. Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons to be concerned about GMOs—concerns about their use in agriculture in ways that lead to increased pesticide application, about egregious corporate behavior on the part of Monsanto and others that have led to serious problems and litigation for some farmers, and about the lack of transparency surrounding the whole issue due to the protections that patent and trade secret laws have provided for the companies. The fact that Monsanto is one of the major donors to the No on 37 campaign is reason enough for some people to vote yes. But Monsanto’s opposition to Prop. 37 doesn’t necessarily make it a good law.
As far as I can tell, no reliable study has proven a health risk from GMOs. Proponents often point to a recent study done in France showing that rats fed a GMO diet exhibited hormone imbalances and developed breast tumors at a higher rate, but other scientists have been extremely critical of the methodology for this study. More and better independent studies are definitely needed—too much of the research done in this area has been done by agencies that already have a clear pro- or anti-GMO agenda. Those studies only muddy the waters.
With no proven health risk posed by GMOs, people would be better off opting for foods labeled “organic.” Organic foods not only cannot contain GMOs but they must also be grown free of pesticides, which have been proven to have clear health risks for those who consume those foods and even more so for the people who farm them. The laws regarding labeling foods “organic” are already clearly established and practiced, and organic foods are becoming more and more accessible and affordable. Shopping for the organic label is not only a simpler solution than a GMO label, it is a healthier solution.
Perhaps my overriding reason for voting no on Prop. 37 is that the anti-GMO campaign has over-stated its case against GMOs. Aside from stating that risks have clearly been proven when they have not, they imply that all GMO products are engineered to contain or be resistant to pesticides. They’re not. Although currently, most commercially grown GMOs have been developed for pesticide resistance, genetic engineering is also used to develop disease resistance. Have you eaten a papaya in the past 15 years? If so, it was a GMO papaya, since the papayas grown in Hawaii were wiped out by a virus and replaced in 1998 by a GMO disease-resistant variety. Without genetic engineering for disease resistance, the prospects for feeding an exploding world population become substantially more bleak.
For the past several years I have been raging at the climate-change deniers and creationists who have been pushing government policies with no respect for what science says on the matter. They’ve used ginned-up studies and fear-mongering to persuade people to deny the scientific proof that doesn’t fit their ideology. But if we only respect the science that validates what we already believe, then we’re not respecting science at all. I have to apply that same standard to the issue of GMOs. If more reliable studies prove a health risk, I will revise my opinion about them. But in the meanwhile, a labeling law that may prove costly, particularly to those who can least afford it, and does nothing to help people really understand the safety of their foods does not seem to me to be the answer.